by Sarah Peguine
On Control and Creation
For those familiar with Nelly Agassi’s work, her current solo exhibition at Dvir Gallery in Tel Aviv might seem surprising and destabilizing at first. Indeed, the exhibition marks a turning point in Agassi’s direction, usually known for her delicate fabric drawings, large-scale installations, and performances and video art relating to the artist’s body. In Down where the little fishes grow Agassi presents fourteen large-scale inkjet prints, which after a closer inspection, turn out to have numerous meeting points within her past pieces.
The starting point for the show is the Kirkbride Plan; developed by American therapist Thomas Scott Kirkbride in the mid-19th century. The definition of the Kirkbride Plan is best explained in the exhibition text, written by Abigail Winograd: “The Kirkbride asylum was gargantuan, located in the country, highly segregated by sex, illness, and social class. Kirkbride’s ideal institution combined physical and psychological treatments administered in carefully organized, meticulously designed spaces.”
In the exhibition, Agassi assumes the role of a meticulous researcher, architect, and above all, that of an artist who continues to explore her limits. Based on the architecture of the Kirkbride Plan and her findings surrounding it, postcards depicting Kirkbride asylums and their landscapes (the show’s title is based on one of them), are on view. Agassi has created her own drawings that follow the matrix of the Kirkbride Plan: a central element (the asylum’s administration room in the original plan) is framed on both sides by identical elements (patients’ rooms in the original plan). The plan is used here as a rule—but Agassi, with her high sensitivity, takes the entire system to another level. The drawings evoke dada automatic drawings, the imagery of feminine organs, of monsters, of organic growths. The strict limitations imposed by the artist, and the sense of control—following the structure of the Kirkbride Plan—explore Agassi’s own limits, creating something new, beautiful, and full of imagination.
Agassi began working on the project in her small studio in her Chicago home, with an A4 paper, a pencil and ruler, using the Kirkbride Plan as her only guidance, though the end result in the exhibition are large inkjet prints of the original drawings. Like in all of the artist’s previous work, the source of the image refers to her own scale—the A4 is the size of her waist, or womb, Agassi explains. The reference to femininity is a theme the artist has always been fascinated with. However, enlarging the scale of the paper allows for a better inspection of the detailed drawings; what started out as a scale of personal reference is transformed into a larger one, encompassing both the artist and viewers at once. In this way, the enlargement is also a performative act.
In the exhibition, Agassi is engaging in both a personal quest—one that tackles important changes in her private life, becoming a mother and moving from Tel Aviv to Chicago—but also one that asks universal questions about art itself; a practice that is both controlled and planned, yet at the same time free and spontaneous. The Kirkbride Plan serves here as a frame, a matrix that allows endless wandering both for the artist and the viewer.
Sarah Peguine is the founder of Oh-So-Arty an online magazine dedicated to the Israeli contemporary art scene, and the former co-Director of Dvir Gallery. She is also the creator of Art Galleries in Tel Aviv.